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AND TO CERTAIN KINDRED SUBJECTS 



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BY 

HENRY L. MASON 

DELIVERED BEFORE 
THE SOCIETY OF MUSIC TEACHERS 

AT 

CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA 

ON APRIL I 8, 1929 



THOUGHTS PERTAINING TO 
MUSIC 

AND TO CERTAIN KINDRED SUBJECTS 



HENRY L. MASON 

BOSTON 



THE story of music contains a vast deal of material, 
fascinating and appealing in its nature not alone to 
the music-student as such, but likewise to the historian, the 
philosopher and the psychologist, to the educator, the sci- 
entist and the ethnologist. For the progress and develop- 
ment of music — from its genesis in the cries and bodily 
motions through which the savage expresses his feelings to 
the highly evolved forms and the profoundly beautiful con- 
tributions of later-day master-composers — constitute an in- 
tegral and important manifestation of the progress and 
development of the human race as well. The study of the 
one is illuminating and vital in the study of the other; the 
two are indissolubly related and interdependent. 

Music in one phase or another, howsoever crude or re- 
fined the phase may be, appears as the ally of man through- 
out the ages, and his love for music abides in man as an in- 
herent instinct. Of all the arts the most impersonal, music 
is yet the most personal; it is individual, yet also social; and 
being a means of expression — whether through song, dance 
or instrument — it possesses the capacity of affecting not 
only a single consciousness, but many. 



4 Thoughts Pertaining to Music 



"Music," writes Romaine Rolland, "may be the off- 
spring of meditation and sorrow, but it may also be that of 
joy and even frivolity. It accommodates itself to the char- 
acters of all people and all time; and when one knows its 
history and the divers forms it has taken through the cen- 
turies, one is no longer astonished at the contradictory 
definitions given it by lovers of beauty. One man may call 
it architecture in motion, another poetic psychology; one 
man sees it as a plastic and well-defined art, another as an 
art of purely spiritual expression. For one theorist, melody 
is the essence of music, for another this essence is harmony. 
And, in truth, it is so — all are correct. It adapts itself to 
every condition of society. It is a courtly and poetic art un- 
der Francis I and Charles IX; an art of faith and fighting 
with the Reformation; an art of affectation and princely 
pride under Louis XIV; an art of the Salon in the eighteenth 
century. It becomes the lyric expression of revolutionaries; 
and it will be the voice of democratic societies of the future, 
as it was the voice of aristocratic societies in the past. No 
formula will hold it. It is the song of centuries and the flow- 
er of history; its growth pushes upward from the griefs as 
well as from the joys of humanity." 

Obviously, then, the urge of music is universal, and 
although of itself music is neither moral nor immoral, but 
unmoral, the influence it exerts upon the moral or immoral 
tendencies of man permeates life in its every aspect. 

But what of the medium through which musical under- 
standing and appreciation become possible? The instru- 



and to Certain Kindred Subjects 5 



ment, or means, of musical expression? First of all there is 
the human voice; nature's gift to one and all. But to supple- 
ment and to augment the possibilities of music through 
song man's ingenuity has been ever alert; instruments have 
been invented and to a greater or lesser degree perfected 
from time to time, with the result that the history of in- 
strument-making may be taken as a guide, as it were, to 
the history of the development and progress of music it- 
self. From the simple reed of the savage capable of pro- 
ducing but a limited number of different tones, to the superb 
and many- voiced orchestra of modern days is in truth a far 
cry; and here is ready at hand a field of investigation rich 
in its manifold interests, as also in its bearing upon the 
onward march of music from time immemorial. Here, too, 
are represented the two extremes of man's ingenuity as ap- 
plied to the making of musical instruments. But what of 
the mean, the instrument inclusive of all instruments, so to 
speak, the instrument by which it becomes possible for the 
individual to realize and to study the music of the world? 
Without doubt this is found in the pianoforte — the most 
important one instrument yet fashioned by man. The in- 
strument pre-eminently of the home, the instrument more 
generally used than any other. 

And since this is so, it may be of interest to the reader to 
consider the construction, the make-up, of the modern in- 
strument. The artistic grand pianoforte is an evolution, an 
outcome of years of scientific investigation and labor. A 
bird's-eye view of its construction is as follows: 



6 Thoughts Pertaining to Music 



First, the case, consisting of the sides and ends, or rather 
the rims, as they are technically called; while within the 
rims (of which there are two, an outer and an inner), sup- 
porting and holding them in place, are posts or beams of 
heavy timber. These posts, together with the inner rim, 
form the frame, or skeleton, of the instrument. To this 
frame, at its front end, is attached the wrest-plank or pin- 
block, into which the tuning-pins are driven. Over the 
frame-work as a whole is laid the sounding-board, which is 
convex, or arched, in shape, and which at its edge is se- 
curely fastened to the inner rim. Over the sounding-board 
in turn is placed the full metal plate. The specific purpose of 
the latter is to hold the strings. The strings are drawn 
across the plate from the tuning-pins at its front end to 
hitch-pins at its rear — the positions of these pins being care- 
fully determined with the object in view that the string 
tension, which equals a constant pressure of from forty to 
forty-five thousand pounds, may be nicely proportioned 
throughout. The action is then adjusted; and in such man- 
ner that a hammer, upon being brought into play by the de- 
pression of its key, shall strike a string, or unison, thus 
causing the latter to vibrate. Now, the strings, in being 
drawn from the front to the rear end of the plate, pass over 
or across a bridge, known as the belly-bridge; and this 
bridge rests directly upon and is glued to the sounding- 
board. The proper height of the bridge is a delicate matter; 
if too high, the downward pressure of the strings overbal- 
ances the upward pressure exerted by the arched board; if 
too low, vice versa. There must be compensation. As the 



and to Certain Kindred Subjects 7 



strings are set pulsating, or vibrating, by the hammer blows 
the vibratory motion is communicated through the bridge to 
the sounding-board, and thereby amplified and re-enforced. 

Of all the factors mentioned, not one surpasses in im- 
portance the sounding-board; for upon the character of the 
board depends in large degree the character of the tone. 
True, one of the worlds great exponents of the art of piano- 
forte playing, the late Anton Rubinstein, declared: "The 
more I play, the more thoroughly I am convinced that the 
pedal is the soul of the pianoforte." But the pedal is a por- 
tion of the action, and it may be that Rubinstein was some- 
what prejudiced; for being by nature anything but "static" 
the action to him bulked large! But others there are who 
declare the sounding-board to be the soul of the instrument, 
if we must use the term at all. And while it is true that with- 
out the action we could not produce the tone, the fact re- 
mains that were it not for the sounding-board the tone pro- 
duced would amount to little or nothing! However, sup- 
pose we leave it that they are both important; not only be- 
cause every musical instrument may be divided into two 
parts — the tone-producing mechanism, and the tone-con- 
trolling mechanism — but also because, as the dear old lady 
said, "Comparisons are odorous!" 

In any event, the board has commanded, since time out 
of mind, the earnest attention of engineer, acoustician, and 
scientific investigator. It is the board which supplies the 
resonance, and it is the resonance which vitalizes the sound, 
feeble enough in itself, generated by the strings. Without 



8 



Thoughts Pertaining to Music 



the resonant property of the board, no pianoforte tone, as 
such, would be possible; and since the arch, or crown, of the 
board is largely responsible for the board's property of 
resonance, it becomes but axiomatic to state that the de- 
sirability, nay, the necessity of maintaining the arch is of 
paramount importance. 

In view of the constant pressure of the strings upon the 
board, via the bridge, and in view of devastating effects of 
climatic and atmospheric changes — changes ever imminent, 
and at times very real — even a strengthened, laminated, 
continuous rim (introduced fifty years or more ago and 
pretty generally used today) proved insufficient. A still 
further buttressing of the board — a desideration of high 
importance — was yet to be achieved. Contrivances with 
this end in view have from time to time appeared (as, for 
instance, a system of screw compression, 1872, acting 
against the board's entire edge), though they proved to be 
abortive. Of all attempts to solve the problem one alone 
has been successful. 

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. The diffi- 
culty was finally surmounted in the year 1900 by a device 
patented at the time and known as the Tension Resonator. 
In referring to this invention, the Scientific American, of 
October 11, 1902, stated the following: 

"One imperfection in the modern pianoforte, found even 
in the instruments made by standard makers, has been the 
loss in tone quality, due to the inability of the sounding- 
board to retain its tension. The problem seems at last to 



and to Certain Kindred Subjects 9 



have been satisfactorily solved by a most simple and in- 
genious construction. Doubtless the question has pre- 
sented itself to many of our readers, Why is it that a violin 
improves with age and that a piano deteriorates? A com- 
parison of the construction of the sounding-boards of the 
two instruments will give a satisfactory explanation. 

"The sounding-board of a violin has a permanent shape. 
The stiffening-post which is inserted within the instru- 
ment directly beneath the bridge, where the greatest strain 
is exerted, connects the board with the back and thus pre- 
vents a rupture of the board at its weakest point. The tense 
strings and the vibrant board are a unit in themselves, the 
strain of the one counteracting the strain of the other. 

"In the piano the case is different. The best pianos are 
provided with sounding-boards slightly arched, over which 
the strings extend. The strings being spread over the entire 
surface, must necessarily be on a straighter surface than is 
the case with the violin, where the four strings bear upon a 
very small part only of the sounding-board. Therefore, the 
tremendous strain of the strings on a modern piano has the 
tendency from the first to force down the arch of the board. 
In the very finest and most expensive pianos when new, the 
strain of the arched board against the strings, and the 
strain of the strings against the arched board, are so finely 
adjusted that the one counterbalances the other. That is to 
say, the sounding-board is able to carry the strain of the 
downward-bearing strings, and at the same time is pliable 
enough to yield to the slightest vibration of the strings. If 



io Thoughts Pertaining to Music 



the sounding-board is too stiff and heavy only violent vi- 
brations will affect it, and it will throw out only a blunt, 
dull sound. On the other hand, if the sounding-board can- 
not carry the strain of the strings properly there will not 
be the proper resistance, and the sound will be wiry and 
thin, 'tin-panny,' in other words. So sensitive is the wood 
to climatic changes that the piano sounding-board loses its 
shape very easily. Under certain conditions the sounding- 
board will expand, and the soft and hard fibres of the wood 
will be pressed together, which in itself results in no injury; 
under other conditions the sounding-board will contract so 
that it assumes a perfectly flat shape. Even if the board 
does not crack after contraction, as it often does, the loss 
of its original convex shape results in a great loss of tone, 
owing to the board's inability to bear against the strings 
as it once did. The result is a deterioration of tone in all 
pianos when old, no matter how finely they sounded at one 
time. Since the loss of shape is permanent, the loss of tone 
is permanent. 

"The wood being as good as it ever was, it follows that 
were there some means of restoring to the sounding-board 
its original convex form, so that it would bear upon the 
strings as it originally did, the tone would surely return. 
By means of the new construction, to which we have re- 
ferred, not only is this much-desired end attained, but 
something more. The sounding-board bears with greater 
pressure and far more vitality against the strings than the 
necessarily thin sounding-board could in itself. This extra 



and to Certain Kindred Subjects ii 

pressure against the strings, which the contracted board 
gets by means of tension resonator rods, is entirely differ- 
ent from the rigid stiffness of a too heavily constructed 
board, and by this method the musical quality of the in- 
strument is much improved." 

So much for the Scientific American. But the Tension 
Resonator possesses other virtues as well. It is, for instance, 
an undeniable means of unifying the various contributory 
tonal factors, of knitting into one complete whole the sal- 
ient tone-producing elements of the structure. 

Until approximately the year 1890 the universal custom 
had prevailed of so adjusting the bridge to the sounding- 
board that the grain in the wood of the former should run 
at right angles to the grain of the latter. But, in order to 
meet a growing demand for an increased tonal-volume ca- 
pacity, it became necessary to somewhat alter the construc- 
tion of the board. For an increase in tonal-volume pre- 
figures the necessity of thicker or heavier strings, assuming 
of course that the string-lengths remain unchanged; while 
thicker strings, in turn, signify an increase in string ten- 
sion. As a result, however, of intensive research it was at 
length determined, and empirically proven as well, that if 
the grain of the bridge runs as nearly parallel as possible to 
the grain of the board, while the grain of the re-enforcing 
ribs or bars on the reverse side of the board runs at right 
angles to the grain of the latter, and if a correct width, 
height, and tapering of the bars toward the board's inte- 
rior area be obtained, it was determined, we say, that not 



12 Thoughts Pertaining to Music 



only will the board be possessed of a greater strength than 
otherwise, but that its elasticity, also, will be preserved. 
And among the indispensable attributes of the board, 
strength and elasticity are foremost. 

Furthermore, a greater string tension necessitates a 
higher bearing, as it is called, on the bridge, in order that 
the additional downward pressure of the strings may be 
adequately provided for. Hence it follows that the entire 
structure becomes subjected to an unprecedented strain. 
In the Tension Resonator form of construction ample pro- 
vision for this strain is made. 

Again, as a result of thus amply providing for this in- 
creased strain and its counterbalancing resistance, the 
sensitiveness of the instrument as a whole, as well as its ca- 
pacity for endurance, becomes pronouncedly enhanced. 
Consequently, by virtue of the Tension Resonator, the 
resultant tone itself is highly sensitized; it is a tone of sig- 
nal refinement; of a character purely musical, and it at all 
times sings as it bears its message to the lover of beauty. 

Thus, since tone quality is the ultimate test of evaluation, 
or the criterion in accordance with which a pianoforte is to 
be judged, the Tension Resonator takes its place not only 
as the foremost structural feature of the last sixty years or 
so, but also as an unique factor of progress in the evolution 
of the pianoforte at its best. 

The builder of a truly artistic pianoforte must have ever 
before him the idea of quality, rather than quantity. The 
wood, the metals, and the manifold component parts must 



and to Certain Kindred Subjects 13 



be thoroughly seasoned, selected and tested. They must all 
be put into their respective places by intelligent, skilled 
men; unstinted care and unflagging attention are indis- 
pensable. The manufacturer of such an instrument may 
count himself fortunate if the finished pianoforte is ready 
for the hands of the musician after months of unremitting 
labor. His shibboleth may well be "Perfection," and he 
himself a practical idealist, and, though he may never at- 
tain his ideal, for such is the lot of mortals, still must he 
trudge on and on toward his goal. Well may he cry with 
Carlyle, "Courage, ever Forward!" 

Prior to the introduction of the iron plate (of which we 
have spoken above) the forerunners of the pianoforte, such 
as spinets, harpsichords and clavichords, were constructed 
entirely of wood with a far less string tension, less res- 
onance, and less tone volume. In the days of our great- 
grandfathers such a work as Tschaikowsky's B-Flat Minor 
Pianoforte Concerto with its heavily-scored orchestral ac- 
companiment could have received no adequate representa- 
tion; indeed, the pianoforte of the concert hall of to-day 
must needs be far more powerful than one of, say, even 
fifty years ago in order that it may hold its own against the 
modern orchestra — and yet it must possess, too, a capacity 
for utmost lightness and delicacy, since it is expected to 
instantly respond not only to the crashing blow of the im- 
passioned virtuoso, but also to the faintest touch of a well- 
trained hand! 

The development, then, of the pianoforte has kept pace 



14 Thoughts Pertaining to Music 



with the development of music, ever meeting the demands 
from time to time as composers have in their musical 
scores called for an increased or amplified volume of tone. 

Of music for the pianoforte there is indeed an abundance 
— more by far than for any other one instrument. In ad- 
dition to an almost inexhaustible store of music originally 
composed particularly for the pianoforte, there are ar- 
rangements, for two hands or for four hands, of practically 
all musical compositions of importance — and alas, much 
more besides! — as well as transcriptions of works written 
for other instruments or for combinations of instruments, 
such as, for example, symphonies, operas, chamber music, 
overtures, songs, organ music, and so on ad infinitum. 

We see at a glance, then, what a treasure trove for the 
music lover the pianoforte actually is. Opportunity is here 
afforded for the study, the joy, and enlightenment in the 
appreciation of music through the pianoforte as a means, 
which is far, far-reaching and inestimable. 

But we live in a remarkable age! And opportunity mul- 
tiplies apace ! For to-day, as everyone knows, by means of 
the phonograph, radio broadcasting, and through the re- 
producing pianoforte, it becomes a simple matter for those 
living in places howsoever remote from musical centers, to 
obtain authoritative interpretations of first-class music, to 
cultivate their appreciation of music as played and sung 
by great artists, to "listen in" to performances of symphony 
orchestras and chamber music organizations, as well as to 



and to Certain Kindred Subjects i 5 



operatic stars and soloists playing upon all manner of in- 
struments. 

Thus it is that the influence of music as never before, in 
this country at least, reaches out far and wide and carries 
its message to millions upon millions. Of the influence thus 
spread broadly over the land, let us quote in closing, 
words recently written by Calvin Coolidge, Ex-President of 
the United States. 

"Engrossed by the pressure of worldy affairs, we 
are too prone to disregard the vital importance to 
life of the fine arts. It is in order that these may 
exist that we rise above the field, the shop, and the 
market-place, that out of their bounty there may be 
woven into life the richness of increasing beauty, 
the grace of a higher nobility. It is through art that 
people find the expression of their better, truer 
selves. Sometimes it is expressed in literature, some- 
times in sculpture and architecture, sometimes in 
painting, but in all the fine arts there is none that 
makes such a universal and compelling appeal as 
music. No other expression of beauty finds such 
ready and ennobling response in the heart of man- 
kind. It is the art especially representative of de- 
mocracy, of the hope of the world. When at the 
dawn of creation, as it was revealed to the universe 
that good was to triumph over evil, the thanksgiving 
and praise found expression in music, the stars sang 
together for joy." 



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